Stylistic Sabotage and Thorstein Veblen's Scientific Irony

By Cassano, Graham | Journal of Economic Issues, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Stylistic Sabotage and Thorstein Veblen's Scientific Irony


Cassano, Graham, Journal of Economic Issues


Thorstein Veblen was, perhaps, the first theorist of the "post-modern era." By saying that, I do not mean to impose our belated historical categories upon his work; the hazards of such an abstract historicism are well known. But Vebten himself used the phrase "post-modern era" as early as 1918 to describe the Occident at the dawn of the twentieth century. (1) Clearly, Veblen did not mean what Jean-Francois Lyotard or Fredric Jameson meant by that same phrase. Nonetheless, the historical accident of this particular "perspective by incongruity" proves revealing. As the intellectual historian John Patrick Diggins has noted, while Veblen cannot accurately be described as a poststructuralist (after all, during Veblen's lifetime, structuralism itself was only coming into being in the works of Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, and Ferdinand de Saussure [19591), his work seems premised upon an uncanny prefiguration of many poststructuralist themes. "As if he were a proto-poststructuralist, he sought to deconstruct the conventional hierarchical oppositions that privilege the former term over the latter: male-female, civilization-barbarism, leisure-labor, reason-instinct, practicality-curiosity, normal-abnormal" (Diggins 1999, xxxiii). While not reducing Veblen to suit the categories of contemporary thought, this essay attempts to take seriously Veblen's prefiguration of the poststructuralist attitude through a critical consideration of the constitutive power of his literary style.

The guiding concept of these investigations is that "style" need not be considered a mere addendum to content-that the style and content of a work are coextensive and mutually determinate (Goodman 1978, 23-40). From this broad perspective, style is not considered simply as a technique but as a constituent element in the "intention" of the work. That is to say, style impacts upon meaning. Georg Lukacs put it this way: (2)

   It is the view of the world, the ideology or weltanschauung
   underlying a writer's work, that counts. And it is the writer's
   attempt to reproduce this view of the world which constitutes his
   "intention" (3) and is the formative principle underlying the style
   of a given piece of writing. Looked at in this way, style ceases to
   be a formalistic category. Rather, it is rooted in content; it is
   the specific form of a specific content. (1963, 19)

Because style is "rooted in content," style and content can never be completely disentangled; it is senseless to speak of a text's content analytically drained of style. And, since Veblen's dominant stylistic trope is irony, this essay examines the effect of an ironic style upon scientific discourse, as well as upon Veblen's very (ironic) conception of science itself. (4) If Veblen "wrote by indirection, in a style designed to disguise his own thoughts" (Diggins 1999, xvii), as I think he did, then a revised understanding of Veblen's work may be accessible through a careful examination of his style. Perhaps we might unmask the thoughts that he hoped to disguise. Of course, this method makes sense only if it proves fruitful. And, I think, it does. (5)

At this point I need to clarify a methodological issue. I intentionally read Veblen against the grain of conventional interpretations. By doing so, I do not mean to discount or supplant previous understandings of his work; rather, I believe this sort of critical rereading opens his text to new possibilities. Without a doubt, the "center of gravity" for Veblen's work lies in his critique of capitalism and his insistence upon the "matter of fact" point of view promulgated by modern science, technology, and industry. Consequently, I take for granted the so-called "Veblenian dichotomy": (6) the distinction that Veblen made between instinct of workmanship and the more predatory drives that lead to private ownership. Capitalism, the "price-system," the rule of the market, and supply and demand are ultimately incompatible with the smooth and efficient operation of industry and science as autonomous social and technological forms (7) and thus ultimately incompatible with the common good conceived in utilitarian terms. …

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